On puns, placards and political protest

On Saturday 23 March 2019 around 1 million people (including me) took to the streets of London to show our disgust at the Brexit shambles and to demand a #PeoplesVote. I’ve no idea if it will make any difference but it felt right – and beats simply pulling your hair out in frustration every time the word Brexit is mentioned. I’m glad I participated. It was a good experience being part of a good-humoured, like-minded crowd.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the march was reading the many inventive and amusing home-made placards. People had travelled from all over Europe and the British Isles to be part of the march and had made serious efforts with their placards. I had struggled to come up with a suitably pithy and devastating line so I fell back on wordplay, the good old pun.

My #PeoplesVote placard - with thanks to Dusty Springfield

The Oxford Dictionary defines a pun as:

A joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings.

As a nation, we love to hate puns but they do come in handy, especially for protest placards. For my placard I took inspiration from the old Dusty Springfield song I Only Want To Be With You.

And it turns out many people had the same idea – I saw placards that had played with many different song lyrics including Harry Neilson’s Without You, Prince’s Nothing Compares to You, Wonderwall by Oasis and Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.

Photo credit: Londonist.com

But puns weren’t the only form of wordplay to be seen. Much fun was had with the word Brexit itself…

But I think my favourite placards were the ones that played on quotes from popular culture. Like this one referencing the movie Clueless

And these Ru Paul’s Drag Race-inspired placards …

As well as being an important part of a free and open democracy, public demonstrations also seems to provide a creative outlet for communal polite venting, which swearing at the radio or TV simply can’t match.













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2018 Words of the year reflect our turbulent times

Image credit: hackernoon.com

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s time for the major dictionaries to announce their annual Words of The Year (WOTY). So far three words have been revealed, with more expected to come from American dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster in December, and the Australian WOTY for 2018 will be announced in the new year.

It’s not surprising that the words that get chosen (either by vote, or by being the most searched-for terms reported by the dictionaries) reflect the zeitgeist. It’s interesting to see which words sum up our collective experiences of the past twelve months.

First to announce their WOTY for 2018 was Collins Dictionary with single-use, a term they say:

Single-use refers to products – often plastic – that are ‘made to be used once only’ before disposal. Images of plastic adrift in the most distant oceans, such as straws, bottles, and bags have led to a global campaign to reduce their use.

The dictionary reports single-use has ‘seen a four-fold increase since 2013, with news stories and images such as those seen in the BBC’s Blue Planet II steeply raising public awareness of the issue.’

Other words included in Collins’ shortlist for their WOTY 2018 included:

  • Backstop (Brexit)
  • Floss (dance craze)
  • Gammon (reactionary white older men)
  • Gaslight (manipulation of a person with false information)
  • MeToo (cultural movement to expose sexual harrassment)
  • Plogging (picking up litter while jogging)
  • VAR (video assistant referee – football)
  • Vegan (person who doesn’t eat or use any animal product)
  • Whitewash (using white acotrs to play characters of other ethnicities).

Next to announce their WOTY for 2018 was Oxford Dictionaries with toxic. They reported a 45% rise in the number of times the word toxic was looked up on oxforddictionaries.com during 2018 and also noted that it had been in a wide range of different contexts – see video below.

Oxford Dictionaries’ shortlist for WOTY 2018 included:

  • Gaslighting
  • Incel (short for involuntarily celibate)
  • Techlash (negative reaction to the influence of Silicon Valley tech companies)
  • Gammon
  • Big Dick Energy (understated confidence)
  • Cakeism (Brexit – Britain could both have its cake and eat it)
  • Overtourism (when too many tourists damage popular destinations)
  • Orbiting (when someone stops communicating directly but still engages on social media).

The third WOTY 2018 was revealed by dictionary.com to be misinformation, which it defines as:

false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.

With information spread so rapidly and widely via the internet we all need to be much more critical in our reading and viewing habits. Misinformation is the perfect word to define 2018.

The politics of Brexit here in the UK and the style of the Trump presidency in the USA are both characterised by misinformation and disinformation – and we need to be aware of the difference. As dictionary.com states:

the difference between misinformation and disinformation comes down to intent.

Image credit: wikipedia.org

Runners-up on dictionary.com’s 2018 WOTY shortlist included:

  • Representation (as in black and Asian characters in films)
  • Self-made (as in ‘self-made’ billionaire)
  • Backlash.

So far we have single-use, toxic, and misinformation as WOTY 2018. I’ll be very surprised if the other WOTY don’t also reflect our current turbulent times.

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Typography of the people, by the people, for the people

Rubbish font by Frazer Price. Photo credit: img.fontspace.com

Every now and then someone takes something mundane and spins it into gold, just like Rumplestinkskin.

Today, among the angry, anxious chatter about Brexit and Trump on my Twitter feed, there came a retweet that brightened my day and made me smile:

Frazer Price has taken the trashy daubings of letters and numbers on British rubbish bins and has created something called the Rubbish Font from these found scrawls. I’m sure by now the Rubbish Font has had many more downloads. It’s the perfect typeface to express just how rubbish things are at the moment: typography of the people, by the people, for the people.

Some have been quick to see its usefulness:

From @Felstaff

Rubbish font as used by @Felstaff on Twitter

From  @Davidmason800

Rubbish font as used by @DavidMason800 on Twitter

And from @MJ_Cruickshank

Image credit: @MJ_Cruickshank on Twitter

I salute you, Frazer Price. You’ve made good use of bad rubbish …





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Less is more in business writing

We live in world supersaturated with words. Written words, spoken words; in print and online – there’s an endless stream of them assaulting our senses. Getting your message or your company story heard amongst all the other voices is getting harder.

More precise customer segmentation and targetting clearly helps. But these tools have little effect if your audience doesn’t have the time to read or listen to what you have to say. Clarity and concision will always trump a cascade of ‘content’.

As Dr Seuss put it:

So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.

Those of us writing in the digital world need to pay special heed to the demands of busy readers. Fortunately, apps such as Buffer can help to track the performance of social media content. They have even produced a useful infographic that tells you the optimal length for social media posts, headlines, blogs and more.

For instance, they suggest that the optimal length of an online paragraph should be 40-55  characters. So, I should split my previous paragraph in half to make it easier to read.

Of course, content isn’t just words. Graphic design and typography are also important. Buffer gives this advice:

Opening paragraphs with larger fonts and fewer characters per line make it easier for the reader to focus and to jump quickly from one line to the next.

Concise writing not only helps you stay within these optimal word and character counts, it also improves the ‘flow’, and makes it easier to read.

This is the secret that most good writers know and work hard at to achieve:

Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.  Mark Twain

I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.  Elmore Leonard

It may be harder to write fewer words but it’s worth the effort.



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Swearing – a sign of wit and intelligence?

It might seem counterintuitive but scientists have found that swearing fluency is actually a sign of more intelligence and greater vocabulary rather than less.

As Richard Stevens, writing in The Conversation says:

… swearing appears to be a feature of language that an articulate speaker can use in order to communicate with maximum effectiveness. And actually, some uses of swearing go beyond just communication.

Most of us in the swearing community tend to use cuss words as intensifiers but virtuoso swearing can be elevated to an artform – think of the Martha Wainwright song You Bloody Motherfucking Asshole, or the almost Shakespearean cussing on the TV drama series Deadwood.

Then there’s the magnificent fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the British TV political satire The Thick of It. His response to a knock on his office door – “Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off” – is the stuff of comedy legend.

And for intense dramatic impact using swearing, I can think of no better example than the famous scene in the ‘Old Cases’ episode of the American drama series The Wire. Detectives McNulty and Bunk visit an old scene and communicate using only the words fuck, fuck me, and motherfucker.

But don’t just take my (insert intensifier of your choice) word for it…










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Language loss in dementia: you have to laugh


I’m glad we had the times together just to laugh and sing a song, seems like we just got started and then before you know it, the times we had together were gone.  Dr Seuss

My mother has a mixed diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. She was diagnosed towards the end of 2012 and I have witnessed her slow but inevitable decline over the past four years.

You talkin' to me?

It took me a while to realise that something wasn’t quite right. She was surprisingly eloquent for an Irish girl who went to a convent school and left at the age of 13 with no qualifications.  She had always loved reading poetry and was profoundly moved by the power of words. But alongside this seemingly instinctive literary streak sat a tendency to struggle to find the right words and then muddle them up. As I grew up I found I instinctively knew what she was ‘on about’ and could easily finish her sentences for her. It amused us both.

As the dementia has tightened its grip on Mum, her ability to communicate has unspooled. And while dementia is a horrible, frightening prospect for anyone, we have enjoyed plenty of opportunities to laugh, particularly at some of the things she ‘comes out with’.

And it’s not a case of laughing to make fun of someone. Mum finds her garbled English to be hilarious too. And as the years have gone by, it’s become one of the simple pleasures we can actually share. She will know that she has not quite got something right but will perservere and then laugh the loudest.

Some examples:

On being served some soup: “What’s this? Walrus?”

On picking up a mango: “Is this a gward?” “How do you spell that, Mum?” “Qwrrd.”

“I’ve really got it, haven’t I?” “What, Mum?” “Whatever you get when you lose the thing I’m losing.”

“Warma? Who’s she?” “She?”, says me. “Is it a he then?”

“I’d love to go out and walk around on that green stuff.”

On talking to her grand-daughters about pantomimes:

“Snow White and the seven fellas.”

“Aladdin and his funny lamp.”

“Jack and his flippin’ beanstalk.”

We have recently reached the point where Mum is no longer safe living by herself at home, even with carers visiting three times a day. She will be moving into residential care very soon. It’s a sad step to take but I hope to continue to talk and laugh with her even after she starts to forget who I am.





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Chipping in on ‘chipping in’ …


Twice in one week recently I received requests asking me ‘to chip in’, rather than make a contribution, or to donate money.  It made me wonder if it was the start of a trend, with  organisations trying to soften the bluntness of asking for money. After all, ‘chip in’ sounds much more reasonable, even communal.

The first example was an on-screen message from open-source web browser Mozilla Firefox, which reminded me that “if everyone reading this chipped in $3, we would be supported for another year.”

The second example was an email from the community campaigning platform 38 Degrees, looking to raise money to fund an investigation into Health Minister Jeremy Hunt’s plans to cut NHS services. Whoever wrote the email clearly wasn’t afraid of chipping in plenty of ‘chip in’ requests:

The OxfordDictionaries online defines chip in as:

phrasal verb

1 Contribute something as one’s share of a joint activity, cost, etc.:

‘Rollie chipped in with nine saves and five wins’

‘the council will chip in a further £30,000 a year’

2 Make an interjection:

‘‘He’s right,’ Gloria chipped in’

Curious to know more about the phrase I consulted my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable and found this:

Chip. Chip in, To.

(1) To make a contribution. (2) To interrupt. The first of these meanings derives from the game of poker, in which the chips, representing money, are placed by the players in the ‘pot’. The second may be from the same source.

The second meaning of chip in ‘to interrupt’ seems to be more commonly used in Britain. But it’s interesting that both meanings seems to derive from playing poker. Wonder if I can maintain a poker face when next asked to ‘chip in’ …





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Cracking wise – the art of the hard-boiled sentence

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe with Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

Writing hard-boiled crime fiction isn’t as easy as it may seem. Although it appears to have a consistent structure, and a heavy emphasis on style, putting the elements together to create truly memorable lines takes skill. The prose of writers such as Dashiell Hammett and, my personal hero, Raymond Chandler, make it seem effortless but that’s because they worked hard to perfect their craft. Their cynical, world-weary private investigators, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, set the bar high when it comes to wise-cracking dialogue and vivid descriptions.

Here are a few examples:

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

“I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.”

“Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.”

“My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man

“She grinned at me. ‘You got types?’
‘Only you darling – lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”

“…I guess I can put two and two together.”
“Sometimes the answer’s four,” I said, “and sometimes it’s twenty-two…”

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

“I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.”

“She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.”

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

Not only is it very difficult to write hard-boiled fiction well; it’s just as hard to write it in a deliberately bad way. That takes a certain skill too.

I’ve written before about the International Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad opening lines. Every year writers are invited to submit entries for “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” across a number of different genres, including crime/detective fiction.

The overall winner of the 2015 contest was Joel Phillips with this entry:

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

Some of the best entries (in my opinion)in the crime/detective category were given ‘dishonourable mentions’:

I knew that dame was damaged goods when she first sauntered in, and I don’t mean lightly scratched and dented goods that a reputable merchant like Home Depot might offer in a clearly marked end display sale; no, she was more like the kind of flashy trashy plastic knockoff that always carries a child-choking hazard that no self-respecting 11-year-old Chinese sweat shop kids would ever call theirs.  Tom Billings

The janitor’s body lay just inside the door, a small puncture wound below his right ear made with a long thin screwdriver, the kind electricians use and can often be found in the bargain bin at the hardware store and come with a pair of cheap wire cutters that you never use because they won’t cut wire worth a damn and at best will only put a small indent in the wire so you can at least bend it back and forth until it breaks.  E. David Moulton

And my personal favourite, especially with the clever nod to Chandler’s PI:

When private detective Flip Merlot spotted the statuesque brunette seated at the bar of his favorite watering hole, he was drawn to her like a yellow cat to navy blue pants, and when he sidled up next to her he felt fuzzy all over, kind of like dark blue corduroys get when they’re matted with yellow cat hair.  James M. Vanes

But let’s turn from the ridiculous to the sublime… here’s Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall going head to head in The Big Sleep (1946):

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Humanist celebrants celebrate humanity

At the beginning of 2016 I was accepted onto a British Humanist Association (BHA) training programme to become a humanist wedding celebrant. It’s been a fascinating experience and I’m looking forward to working with couples to help them shape meaningful and memorable, non-religious wedding ceremonies. You can find me at humanist.org.uk/suewalder.

As someone who loves words, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve become interested in the words humanism, humanist, and celebrant.

For as long as I can remember (well, since the age of 10 or 11), I’ve identified myself as an atheist, which is defined as:

 A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

I’d been aware of humanism but hadn’t really grappled with the concept until my father died in 2009 and we arranged to see a humanist funeral celebrant. Even in the midst of my grief, I was deeply impressed by the whole process, which placed my lovely old Dad centre stage. Talking about Dad with the celebrant helped us all to start to deal with our loss. The funeral service itself (which ended with us walking out to the strains of The Goons’ Ying Tong Song) felt very much like a celebration of my Dad’s life. It was a relief to begin thinking about how wonderful he was, rather than the desperately ill man he had become.

Fast forward a few years and through a number of life experiences and I came to realise that while I am an atheist, I am also a humanist and have been living my life according to the priciples of humanism. I just hadn’t found the word for it.

Humanism is an ethical philosophy of life that is based on respecting and caring for one another and the world we live in, without the need for a god, or gods. Humanists use reason, experience and shared human values to make sense of the world. Humanists believe we have only one life and that it is up to all of us as individuals, as well as society as a whole, to live with purpose and meaning.

Stephen Fry describes the humanist approach to life in this video clip:

So, what is a humanist celebrant? Wikipedia gives us this:

A humanist celebrant or humanist officiant is a person who performs secular humanist celebrancy services for weddings, funerals, child namings, coming of age ceremonies and other rituals. Some humanist celebrants are accredited by humanist organisations…

The Online Etymology Dictionary defines celebrant as coming from

the French célébrant, “officiating clergyman”, or directly from Latin celebrantem, the present participle of celebrare.

Humanist celebrants help people celebrate and mark the important rites of passage – birth, marriage and death. Sharing these moments with family, friends, and the wider community, seems to be a vital part of being human. Traditionally, of course, these rituals take place within the context of a religious service.

Yet we live in an increasingly secular society and many people are looking for non-religious ceremonies that truly focus on the individual. Couples planning a wedding often want a more flexible and personal ceremony than that offered by a register office. The latest figures on marriage in England and Wales from the Office for National Statistics, as reported by the BBC, revealed that while the number of marriages declined by 8.6% in 2013, civil ceremonies accounted for 72% of all marriages that year.

Image: humanism.org.uk

BHA celebrants have been conducting humanist weddings since 1896 – that’s 120 years. Strange, then, that humanist weddings are not yet legal in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, humanist weddings have been legally binding since 2005 and over the past decade have increased from about 50 per year to well over 4,000.

The BHA is actively lobbying government to legally recognise humanist wedding ceremonies. In the meantime, the BHA’s Humanist Ceremonies™ network of more than 300 trained and accredited humanist wedding celebrants continues to conduct  weddings for couples in England and Wales. Couples complete the legal paperwork first at a register office, and then work with a celebrant to create a unique wedding ceremony, choosing the venue, readings, music and vows that truly reflect who they are.

Put simply: humanist celebrants celebrate humanity.















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The perils of pronouncing Irish names

I love Irish names with their soft Gaelic sounds. I’m half Irish so when my first daughter was born I wanted to reflect her heritage by giving her an Irish name. We chose Siobhán – a name that wikipedia tells me is derived from Anglo-Norman, Latin, Greek and ultimately Hebrew.  Siobhán is the equivalent of Joan – a feminine version of John.

My daughter loves her name now but got more than a little tired of having to explain how to pronounce it when she was at school. It isn’t ‘See-o-ban’ as most people wrongly guess when first confronted with it. It’s pronounced ‘shiv’ + ‘awn’.

It was therefore with some amusement that I heard about how, when announcing the nominations for Best Actress at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards, actor Denis Quaid famously mispronounced Irish actress Saoirse Ronan’s name as ‘Shee-sha’. It’s actually pronounced ‘sear + sha’ and means freedom, or liberty.

On The Late Show in the US, she spent some time talking about the Irish accent with host Steven Colbert – and he then challenged her to tell him how to pronounce a sequence of Irish names. Siobhán was included, as well as Tadhg, Niamh, and Oisin. But the prize for the  most difficult Irish name to pronounce has to be Caoimhe – watch the clip to find out…

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